As I was posting some of my previous videos I started thinking that I should add a new one describing some of the right-hand techniques you’ve seen me using, so here it is.
When I was learning to play I was taught to place the thumb of my right hand on either a pickup or on the bottom string and then pluck the strings with my index and middle fingers. It’s a very common right-hand technique for the bass and one that I still use a lot (because old habits die hard). The downside of this technique in my opinion is that it doesn’t make enough use of the thumb. The thumb is probably our most versatile and dextrous digit, so some time ago I decided that my two finger technique wasn’t versatile enough for everything I wanted to play on the bass and I started working on some right-hand techniques that use my thumb more.
A simple way to use your thumb with the two finger technique is to use it to dampen and mute the lower strings. Damping is a key issue for bass players especially with the lower strings because they have a tendency to ring and create unwanted noise when we’re not using them. If you position your thumb so that it touches these strings when you’re not using them it will mute them and stop any unwanted noise coming from them. This is a simple adaptation to the technique that can make an important difference to your playing, especially if you have a low B string on your bass. It will involve some practice because you will need to get used to constantly moving your thumb as you change strings but if you’re conscientious about listening out for unwanted noise from your lower strings when you practice then it should become instinctive fairly quickly.
Now let’s change the technique altogether and get our thumb playing notes instead of just damping. The first thing we need to look at is how can we combine using our fingers and thumb. Example 1 is a simple demonstration of how we can play notes by alternating between playing with our thumb and our first finger. In the example T means play the note with your right-hand thumb and i means play the note with your right hand index finger. As you can see from the example we should be able to use this technique to play across strings as in bar one, on adjacent strings as in bar two and on the same string as in bar three.
The advantages of this technique over the two finger technique we looked at earlier are that it is much easier to play across strings using this technique because there is much greater independence (and physical distance) between your index finger and your thumb than there is between your index and middle fingers. I also find it much more natural to keep a constant tempo at high speeds and a third benefit to using this technique is damping, particularly palm-muting. When I use this technique I rest the palm of my hand on the lower strings near to the bridge to dampen them and stop any unwanted noise. In effect my palm is functioning in the same role my thumb was in the previous technique. If I want I can take this damping technique a step further and use my palm to mute the strings I’m playing as well. If you rest your palm on the string close enough to the bridge then you will still here the note you play but it will have a very muted and staccato sound to it, which is a very useful sound. It’s a good approximation to the classic Motown sound that James Jameson used to get by putting bits of foam under his strings in front of the bridge. Anthony Jackson is another great bass player who uses this muted sound a lot in his playing. Try playing through Example 1 both with and without the palm muting and then when you get used to it try applying the same techniques to other areas of your practice.
The next obvious thing to do with this technique is to start using more of the fingers on my right-hand. Example 2 is a demonstration of how to use your thumb, index and middle fingers to play chords, similar to the way a guitarist finger picks. (T, i & m = Thumb, Index and Middle)
You can also add your third finger (and even your little finger) to this technique especially if you’re playing chords that use more than just three strings. Again this is similar to how a guitarist would finger pick.
Another simple technique you can apply to playing chords is raking with either your index or middle finger or both. Example 3 is a demonstration of this technique.
You might think that the next logical place to take our right-hand technique would be to try and use our thumb and three fingers and then our thumb and four fingers. And you might well be right, certainly a lot of bass players have explored techniques using all the fingers on their right hand and I would encourage you to explore it as well as I have in order to find out what works best for you. However my personal favorite technique is a little simpler, I prefer to use my thumb with my index and third finger. I know this sounds a little odd because I’m not using my middle finger but after years of experimenting with three and four finger techniques I’ve found this one to be the most efficient for me. The best reason I can think of for this is because my index and third fingers are almost exactly the same length whereas my middle finger is a lot longer, so when I try and use those three fingers altogether, it works but it feels slightly less comfortable than when I leave the middle finger out. This technique has proved very versatile, it’s fast, it’s easy to cross strings, it’s easy to keep a constant rhythm even at high speeds without getting tired and it works well for both triplet and 16th note rhythms. Example 4 is a demonstration of how we can use this technique to play across strings in bar 1, on adjacent strings in bar 2 and on a single string in bar 3. (In this example T=thumb, 1=index & 3=third finger)
Once you’ve found a technique, or several techniques that work well for you then try applying them in all areas of your practice. For instance, Example 5 is a demonstration of how I might apply my technique demonstrated in Example 4 to practicing a C major scale.
Here is my brief explanation of what intervals are and how to play them on the bass. The word “interval” in music is used to describe the distance (in terms of pitch) between two notes. The smallest interval we have on the fretboard is called a semi-tone and it’s the distance between any note and a note that is one fret above or below on the same string. There are 12 notes in an octave which means there are 12 semi-tone intervals. If we play these 12 semi-tone intervals one after the other then we are playing the “Chromatic Scale”. This isn’t a very interesting sounding scale but it’s really important to understand the chromatic scale if we’re going to understand intervals.
Below is a one octave chromatic scale starting and finishing on C.
Because there are 12 semi-tones in an octave, it is possible to play 12 different intervals within an octave (including the interval of an octave itself). Here is a list of all 12 intervals (plus 4 more intervals that are larger than an octave) along with tab showing how to play them on the bass.
The interval called a “tone” is equal to two semi-tones or you can think of it as the distance of two frets on a single string. Tones and semi-tones are sometimes called whole-tones and half-tones or whole-steps and half-steps.
An interval of three semi-tones is called a minor 3rd and four semi-tones is called a major 3rd. Check out Playing Chords on the Bass – Part 1 where I show you how to make chords by using intervals of major and minor 3rd’s to harmonise scales.
Five semi-tones gives us an interval of a 4th (a 4th is neither major nor minor and is sometimes called a perfect 4th). Six semi-tones gives us an interval which can be called a sharpened 4th because it’s one semi-tone bigger than a 4th or it can be called a flattened 5th because it’s one semi-tone smaller than a 5th (it’s also sometimes called a tri-tone because six semi-tones is equal to three tones). Seven semi-tones is called a 5th or a perfect 5th. Eight semi-tones is called a minor 6th and nine semi-tones is called a major sixth. Check out Playing Chords on the Bass – Part 2 where I use intervals of 4th’s, 5th’s and 6th’s to harmonise scales.
Ten semi-tones is an interval called a minor 7th, eleven semi-tones is a major 7th and twelve semitones is an octave. It’s important to note that after the octave the intervals start to repeat the same notes but we do still have different names for intervals above an octave. For example a flattened 9th interval will give you the same note as a semi-tone, a natural 9th interval will give you the same note as a tone, a minor 10th interval is effectively the same as a minor 3rd and a major 10th is the same as a major 3rd
In this second part in my series of videos about playing chords on the bass, we’re going to continue looking at how we can make chords by playing double stops (two notes played at the same time) over open strings. In Part 1 we harmonised scales into intervals of a third and in Part 2 we’re going to see how we can get a whole new set of sounds and chords by changing the interval we use to harmonise our scales.
If you’re not sure what an interval is or how we play intervals on the bass then check out my video called Intervals which is also available on this site and it will explain everything.
In Example 1 I’m playing a C major scale harmonised into intervals of a fourth.
In Example 2 I’m playing the same C major scale played in fourths and I’m playing it over an open A string. Then in the following examples I’m still playing a C major scale over an open A string but I’m changing the interval that I’m using to harmonise the scale. In Example 3 I’m harmonising the C major scale in fifths and in Example 4 I’m using sixths. You can hear that each different interval gives us a different sound even though I’m harmonising the same scale over the same note.
* I’ve marked some chords * in the above examples because they don’t contain thirds. The Am7 and Am9 chords could also function as A7 and A9 because they don’t contain the note C which is the minor 3rd. I’ve labeled them as minor chords because if we were to add a third in this key it would be a minor third C and not a major third C#. The G9/A chords in Examples 2 & 3 also don’t include the 3rd B but again I’ve labeled them according to what they would be if we added a 3rd in this key. The same is true for the chords marked in the examples below.
The next examples are a similar idea only this time I’m harmonising a D major scale and playing it over an open E string, this gives us a Dorian sound. In Example 5 I’m harmonising the scale in fourths, In Example 6 I’m using fifths and in Example 7 I’m using sixths.
Notice how in Example 7 using the open E string instead of the open A string gives us a different option for fingerings when we play the scale in sixths. We can now play the lower of the 2 notes on the A string and the higher note on the G string while we leave out the D string altogether.
These examples are just a very small demonstration of some the sounds that you can come up with using this idea. It wouldn’t be impossible to list here all the possible variations you can achieve by harmonising scales over an open string so I really want to encourage you to experiment and come up with ideas of your own.
Before I leave you, I’m going to share one more idea, here’s what the A melodic minor scale that I introduced at the end of Part 1 sounds like when you harmonise it in sixths and play it over an open A string.
I love the sound of chords played on a bass and I use chords a lot in my playing. Apart from just sounding great, practicing chords on the bass has many benefits and it can really help us to learn harmony on the fretboard. A good place to start is with double stops (playing 2 notes together). In this first example I play an A major scale two notes at a time using intervals of a third. This gives us the foundation of seven different chords.
Click on the examples to make them bigger.
If you play through my written examples, I would encourage you to not just play them the way they are written, its a ok to start like that but once you feel comfortable with the notes I would recommend changing the order in which you play them as this will help you to experiment and come up with musical ideas of your own.
In this second example I play the same notes I played in example 1 but I also play an open A string with each chord.
As you can see from the chord symbols written above the notes, adding this open A string changes some of our double stops into chords. I will try and explain below why I have used these chord symbols, if you re not interested please feel free to skip onto the next examples.
The first chord is still A major but the second chord becomes an inverted B minor 7 chord because the A is the minor 7th relative to the B while the D played on the 7th fret of the G string is the minor 3rd.
The third chord is now A major where before it was C sharp minor. This is because the C sharp played on the 11th fret of the D string is the major 3rd relative to our open A string and the E played on the 9th fret of the G string is now functioning as the 5th. These three notes make a simple A major triad (A, C sharp and E) more commonly just written as A.
The fourth chord is now an inversion of a D major chord, again it is a simple triad, there is the D played on the 12th fret of the D string, there is an F sharp played on the 11th fret of the G string, F sharp is the major 3rd relative to D and the open A sting is the 5th relative to D. So these 3 notes make up a D major triad but it’s an inversion because D is not the lowest note, A is, so we call the chord D over A.
I think of the fifth chord as A major seventh even though it doesn’t contain the major 3rd note, C sharp which is normally found in this chord. It does contain the 5th E and the major 7th G sharp. It’s OK to sometimes leave notes out of chords. On the bass, if we are dealing with extended chords (chords with lots of notes) we will have to leave some notes out so in this case the chord can still function as an A major seventh chord even without the C sharp.
The sixth chord is still F sharp minor as it was in example 1 only now we call it F sharp minor over A because the open A string is now the lowest note.
The seventh chord I have called A major ninth because the G sharp played on the 18th fret of the D string is the major 7th relative to A and the B played on the 16th fret of the G string is the 9th. Normally in a full A major ninth chord you would have a C sharp (the 3rd) and an E (the 5th), but the chord can still be thought of as A major ninth.
If you are struggling to understand all this explanation of the chord symbols don t worry too much, the most important thing is that you learn what they sound like so you can be creative with them.
In example 3 I still play the same notes as example 1 only now I play an open E string with each chord. This gives us a different sound to example 2 and changes the chords. The sound we get is called mixolydian, this is basically what you get when you play an A major scale over an E note.
Now in the next examples I’ll change things slightly. I’m going to stop using the notes from the A major scale that we worked out in example 1. Instead, in the following examples I’ll use the notes from a G major scale (example 4), F major scale (example 5), E major scale (example 6) and C major scale (example 7), and play each of them with an open A string.
These examples are meant to demonstrate the different sounds you can achieve on your bass by harmonising different major scales over a single bass note. In this case the single note was our open A string. I’ve added the Greek names for the modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Aeolian) to the examples above for your reference. These examples are certainly not a complete list of all the modes and I’ve simply presented them here so you can take the idea and experiment to come up with your own ideas. The most important thing, as with everything we practise, is to learn the sounds, once the sounds are in our heads and the notes are under our fingers then we’ve achieved the most important target. Learning the names of the chords and the modes is useful but not nearly as important as learning the sounds they make
I’ve added one last example here to give you an idea of something slightly different. All my previous examples have used a major scale. In this example I’m using a scale called the melodic minor scale. Try this out and see if you can come up with something interesting.
* I’ve labeled the 5th and 7th chords here Amaj7 and Amaj9 because that’s what I’ve called the same chords in previous examples. As I mentioned before, neither chord includes a major 3rd but both chords include the note G sharp which is the major 7th relative to A and so they can both function as an A major chord. It is however important to note that because the scale I’m harmonising in exercise 8 is an A melodic minor scale, then if I were to add the 3rd to either chord then it would be a minor 3rd and not a major 3rd so the full chord would be called A minor with a major seventh.